Every other Tuesday in StoriedK. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.

**Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for the movie 1917.**

There is a scene in Sam Mendes’s World War I drama, 1917, where Lance Corporal Will Schofield stumbles, mesmerized, toward the roaring inferno of the burning cathedral in the center of Écoust-Saint-Mein. He is supposed to be delivering a message to the English 2nd Battalion, located in the Croisilles Wood beyond the city. It’s a vital message, ordering the cessation of an attack planned for dawn that will lead to the likely deaths of everyone in the battalion, but Schofield cannot help stopping and staring at the fire raging against the dark predawn sky. Stark before the flames of the burning church is a dried-up fountain, its silhouette in the shape of a cross, and as he stares, an unknown soldier emerges like a revenant from the smoke—an angel of death.

It is a sort of carefully crafted Hell, although only one of many in 1917. Taking a page from Dante, Mendes’s Hell is both a work of art and nothing less than terrifyingly horrific from start to finish, and his “poor wayfaring stranger” journeying through it—Will Schofield—has many circles and gates through which to pass before he can come to journey’s end. Through the unique filming and artistry of 1917, Mendes holds us in a place of tension as we journey with Schofield, balancing the beauty that is the indomitable spirit of true heroism against the absolute and abject horror of war. No sequence portrays this as well as the night sequence at Écoust-Saint-Mein. But Will Schofield’s journey began long before that moment in the film, and because of the “one-shot” style of filmmaking, the viewer is locked in step with him the entire way.

In locking us into the perspective of one of these characters, 1917 ends up being a story that, through the artistry, reminds us that one life has value in the midst of millions.

Schofield’s (George MacKay) journey begins when his friend Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) chooses him as “his man” to accompany him on a task. When they are subsequently given orders from General Erinmore (played by Colin Firth) to deliver a message across No Man’s Land and enemy territory to the 2nd Battalion to stop a German ambush and prevent the deaths of 1,600 men, a journey of mere miles might as well be a mission through Hell for the two men in 1917 France during World War I.

“Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne, He travels the fastest who travels alone,” General Erinmore tells them, quoting Rudyard Kipling as justification for why they must go alone—a not-encouraging send-off, considering both Gehanna (Hell) and the Throne (Heaven) are destinations in the afterlife. Message runners in World War I were often expected to die, though, during the course of the war. It was not a position that won a soldier acclaim or honor, and it came with a short life expectancy, even amongst the already bleak life expectancy of soldiers in WWI.

As a story following only two men in a race against time, with no major battles dominating the screen time or sweeping overviews to explain the context, 1917 is not a traditional war movie. The story is not one of fighting to win a battle, but one of running against time and through a hellish war landscape to stop a battle and prevent an ambush. As Mendes has said in multiple interviews—and as the earliest trailer and tagline of the film states: “Time is the enemy” in 1917.

In it, Mendes takes one of the most overlooked and thankless human experiences of a grossly inhumane war and, through the use of the technical mastery of one-shot filmmaking, turns that experience into a work of art. It wrestles with a question all entertainment that predicates itself on war should wrestle with: How do we uplift men and women who make the ultimate sacrifices without condoning war as an ultimate good? I think, in the “one-shot” artistry and cinematography of 1917, Mendes found one way of doing so.

1917 tethers us to Schofield for two hours in giving the illusion of being all one long tracking shot. Why film it this way? “I had this thought, ‘Why don’t we lock the audience into the men’s experiences in a way that feels completely unbroken, in a movie that resembles a ticking-clock thriller in which we experience every second passing in real time?'” Mendes says. “It seemed like a natural way of telling the story. Albeit difficult.” Mendes achieved this difficult storytelling feat thanks in large part to the genius and talent of Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins. With Deakins, and after six months of rehearsing on the locations, Mendes shot the film mostly in eight-minute takes that were then seamlessly digitally edited together to create the one-long-take illusion. “One-shot” films are exceptionally rare, and this type of filmmaking is risky in an industry that sees budgets skyrocket when shoots go over schedule. On an eight-minute shot, for example, if an actor misses a mark or flubs a line at minute seven, they have to cut and reset and start the take all over again. It can be tedious and costly and time-consuming. So the next question is: For 1917, aside from making the story feel unbroken, how does this technique aid in the delivery of the story?

Any story can be told from any perspective, but telling a story from a certain perspective can absolutely heighten an audience’s experience with it. In the case of 1917, I would say this is where the one-shot perspective shines. Mendes ensures that we won’t look away from the individual experience because we can’t look away. We don’t get to see what else is going on, because Schofield can’t. The story is set on April 6, 1917—the day America officially entered the war, but no mention of that historically momentous occurrence is made beyond the date being flashed at the opening of the film. If you don’t know anything about the history of WWI, you wouldn’t know why that date is significant. The point being made, I think, is that we can’t know the Americans have entered the war because the average soldier on the front line like Schofield and Blake would not have known. We can’t know the big picture because they don’t know. Throughout the film, Schofield’s disorientation is our disorientation, his shock our shock. He doesn’t get to consider that the whole outcome of the war might be about to shift—he only gets to consider putting one foot in front of the other, the mission, the 2nd Battalion at the end of the line, the clock running out.

This is extremely realistic to what an actual soldier’s experience would have been like on the front lines and in the trenches during a war like World War I, and being trapped in Schofield’s perspective locks us into that ultra-realism. Realism is important when telling a historical story, especially a story of war, even if you are writing historical fiction and not nonfiction.

1917 is a story that is true in essence, if not in actuality. Mendes wrote the initial screenplay based on the memoirs of his grandfather Alfred Mendes, who was a lance corporal in WWI. As such, the story contains facts and remembrances from his grandfather’s writings about message runners and life in the trenches and more, while not telling the war story of Alfred himself. From there, co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns did extensive research for her portion of writing the script. Historical fiction is a time-honored way to learn about a period of history, especially when it is grounded in eyewitness accounts and academic research. Wars remember fighters, but it’s easy to forget about the invisible heroes—the people who do the thankless but vital jobs during wartime. How many men like Schofield and Blake saved countless lives? In imagining the characters of Schofield and Blake, Mendes’s film should not be dismissed as being “not true,” but embraced as being a great piece of historical fiction—true in showing the audience the real world of the period and the conflict through the lens of well-researched and accurately imagined characters.

And in locking us into the perspective of one of these characters, 1917 ends up being a story that, through the artistry, reminds us that one life has value in the midst of millions. One life on one day is worth not looking away from. In a war that treated boys like faceless fodder for endless campaigns of senseless violence, 1917 refuses to let us look away from a single boy on a mission to deliver a message that will stop the slaughter of a battalion of soldiers just like him. There is an implicit intimacy about this sort of storytelling. We are with Schofield, unable to look away or move away. His experience becomes our experience, every step of the mission.

Following the night sequence at Écoust-Saint-Mein, Schofield’s journey takes him through baptismal waters to the Croisilles Wood and a surreal meeting with the 2nd Battalion. Singing greets him in the trees—a soldier (Jos Slovick) singing the American folk song “Poor Wayfaring Stranger”:

I am a poor wayfaring stranger
I’m traveling through this world of woe
Yet there’s no sickness, toil, nor danger
In that bright land to which I go.
I’m going there to see my father,
I’m going there no more to roam,
I’m only going over Jordan
I’m only going over home.

I know dark clouds will gather ’round me,
I know my way is rough and steep,
But golden fields lie just before me,
Where God’s redeemed, shall ever sleep.
I’m going down to see my Mother
And all my loved ones who’ve gone on.
I’m only going over Jordan
I’m only going over home.

I am a poor wayfaring stranger
I’m traveling through this world of woe.
Yet there’s no sickness, toil, nor danger
In that bright land to which I go.
I’m going there to see my father,
I’m going there no more to roam,
I’m only going over Jordan
I’m only going over home.

As when he stood before the burning church, Schofield pauses, unable to go on. Like all the other tension in the film, the mellifluous tenor of the young soldier’s singing is a fitting juxtaposition against the horror—not just the horror of what Schofield has faced to get to him, but the horror of the contemplation of the afterlife the song is about. More so why he is singing: to prepare a battalion of boys gathered around him to go to face their deaths. Deaths Schofield, in their midst, can still prevent if he can just muster his last reserves of strength, get up, and run a little further.

We want him to have these pauses, to be able to rest, but we also want him to run on to the end and finish his race. We can’t see the end unless he sees the end, but more than that, we care about his end. And the filming style highlights this.

The delivery of the story through the one-shot method does more than just lock us into step with Schofield; it forces us to view the artistry and importance of a single human life in the midst of a massive and hellish world conflict—one that swallowed up so many faceless lives and erased a generation of young men. It positions Will Schofield as the ultimate empathetic hero on a journey through Hell, as a true “wayfaring stranger” with no certainty of glory in this life, longing for the reward of a heavenly home. 1917 achieves what a good war movie should: Not a glorification of war, but a glorification of the achievements of unsung heroes against the backdrop of the horror of war. Mendes didn’t have to film his WWI drama as a one-shot narrative, but in doing so he crafted a story that is as much a work of art as it is an examination of how each individual who plays a part in war has a story to tell. I walked out of the theater feeling not just as though I’d seen something I’d never seen before, but that I’d experienced something new, as well.


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